It is customary to smell Besamim – something fragrant, such as Hadasim – at a Berit Mila, as mentioned by the Shulhan Aruch (Yoreh De’a 265:1). And thus, in addition to the Berachot recited over a cup of wine at a Berit, we also recite a Beracha over spices.
The question arises as to the meaning and significance of this practice. We understand that many especially joyous Misvot are accompanied by a cup of wine – such as Shabbat and Yom Tob meals, and the Huppa ceremony – but for what reason do we smell Besamim at a Berit Mila?
One source explains that, very simply, this is done to “revive” those who might feel faint at the sight of the circumcision, where there is blood and an infant cries in pain. Some people might find such a sight difficult to withstand, and spices are smelled to help those who might feel a bit fainthearted.
There is, however, an additional explanation. The Midrash relates that on the day Abraham Abinu underwent circumcision, and also circumcised all the men in his household – which consisted of many servants (as we know, he had an army of over 300 men), he collected all the removed foreskins into a large pile. As the hot sun beat down on these pieces of flesh, they emitted a smell which rose to the heavens. This smell, which testified to the fulfillment of the great Misva of Berit Mila, brought Hashem great delight, as it were, and He vowed at that moment that if He would ever become angry at Abraham Abinu’s descendants, He would remember the smell of these pieces of skin and have compassion on them. Therefore, we smell spices at a Berit to remind Hashem, so-to-speak, of the smell of the original Berit Mila performed by Abraham Abinu and his household, in response to which G-d promised to have compassion on Am Yisrael and forgive us for our wrongdoing. The Besamim we smell at a Berit Mila are thus especially powerful, as they arouse Hashem’s mercy on the Jewish People, bringing to mind the great merit of Berit Mila on account of which He pities us even when we are deserving of punishment, and continues treating us with an abundance of love, kindness and compassion.